That none may penetrate
The coffee mug screeched at me once too often. I had it with grad school at the
University of Iowa. The instructor of my very first class in American Studies discussed how
1750 Salem was laid out indicated the Protestant values and priorities of its settlers. Had
the physical environment of my suburban Chicago hometown contributed to my social
disequilibrium, talking psychotic with Chucky after math class? That question I never
considered. The leap backwards into Puritan yesterdays proved too great an intellectual
challenge. In fact, I took it as a threat to my always-percolating inferiority. That premiere
class began the great decline. Grad school demanded rigor I had never encountered
before. The effort to walk to classes overwhelmed me, so I gave it up.
I squandered my nights in Iowa City’s redneck bars, listening to Kitty Wells and Marty
Robbins. I always drank alone. Dinginess infatuated me, the way those shit-kicker bars
had no adornments, no peanut shells on the floor atmospherics like the collegiate hang-
outs. I eavesdropped on people in the bar, giving me the semblance of mingling, yet too
frightened to mix with real folks. Withdrawal would be safer than talking because I felt
what I had to say was confused yet incendiary, an unruly combination. Down the highway
in a small town I had attended a Methodist-affiliated college. I used to drunk-talk in
a hick bar about the civil rights movement in the South, the Constitution, justice, blah
blah. No other points of view mattered except my own. The consequences of my open
and frank discussions with barflies: I was arrested twice for unpatriotic improprieties and
thrown in jail overnight both times. I would not let that happen in Iowa City.
Once, seated alone in a dark and wooden, straight-back booth removed from the
general ruckus of what passed for an Iowa City honky-tonk, an older woman asked
whether she could join me, and I said yes. Not bad, her thick black hair falling over one
eye, those wrinkly breasts. She asked why I sat alone. I replied that I could hear the jukebox
better. She told me I looked like a student. I told her I was. “Why do you come in a
place like this?” she asked. “I can think here,” I said. Keeping it remote, my true calling.
She patted my hand. It caught me off guard, how warm her hand was. She scooted out
the booth, finding me hopeless but respecting my solitude. I put a quarter in the box.
Yeah, good ole Hank’s lonesome whippoorwill among them. She turned on her bar stool,
lifting her glass: the high sign.
In a small, off-campus room, I chain-smoked Marlboros, dropping the stubbed butts
into a custom-made, ceramic brown mug, the words “Tact Is Absurd” emblazoned in
black on the side. I heard many strange voices come from that mug during the semester.
One night at one a.m., automatic typing a plotless and themeless story, gluing cutout
comic book images onto pages ( I wanted to write Pop Art lit ), the voice at the bottom of
compacted nicotine screamed at me. The mug-voice bellowed about my cowardice, its
shame. Hegira would be the only solution.
Walking past Nelson Algren in a university cafeteria would not be enough to hold me
there. I saw a cleaner looking character than any I had read in his fiction. He taught in the
Writer’s Workshop that fall semester, 1965. I admired Chicago: City On the Make. My
business-executive dad worked in a resplendent office on Michigan Avenue. Algren
told him where to stick it. So I thought back then. Shortly after watching his enigmatic
smile, I caught a Greyhound for New York City. Thirty-six years later I would return to
Iowa for my father’s funeral.
I changed buses in Chicago, making a phone call to my parent’s home in suburban
Barrington. My clothes already had that unsanitary bus reek. I walked into the main lobby
of a posh hotel, announcing to Austin, my dad, that all the money he had invested in me
to get a college-educated trade had been wasted. When asked what I would do in New
York, I stammered. I had no answer. I had read Kerouac, and figured my life would turn
around in Manhattan. You know, the red brick and neon. Only I had no working-class
imprimatur, no girlfriends left behind, no boozy, talky bars where everyone knew my
name. And my life had never been lit by orgiastic hope, that force compelling me into
desire, experience of flesh and bone. None of that literary pizzazz. Sterility marked me. I
had to flee. I would miss the connection east with more chitchat, so I hung up on Dad.
Night-riding through Indiana and Ohio, then daytime in Pennsylvania where a teenage
boy above on a bridge threw down with perfect timing a chunk of ice, shattering the
window of the upper section in front of me. At the next scheduled stop, the driver stuffed
the jagged opening with a dirty blanket. His J.P. Morgan purplish nose disturbed me. Was
that how you looked driving the same route for twenty years? I had always declined
repetitive behavior leading to marketable job skills. I never visualized myself in any
vocation. Blankness saturated me whenever I tried. Literally, drinking beer and staying in
one spot was my ideal. What job highlighted sitting down more than driving a bus? To
see the battering he endured nauseated me. His face showed fatigue. I thought he would
storm out of the bus, screaming, enough, enough. But he roared down the highway with
indefatigable determination to continue the journey in spite of the splinters and shards on
my lap and at my feet. That had been another example of why I should remain aloof from
the fray of real world disasters, i.e., work.
The elation I felt as the Dog passed through the Holland Tunnel and entered Manhattan
must have equaled that of the Puritans when they first saw the thick forest hugging
the coast of New Jerusalem. OK, so I wanted to inject a bit of American Studies, the
geographic reality that the primordial forest grew right up to ocean’s edge. Those Puritans
would have been awed by unlimited wilderness where their theocracy might thrive and
disperse. Minus the religion and wilderness, New York City inspired second chances for
me, the tense pilgrim. Dark-sooty buildings, some with advertisements in big white
letters on their flanks, made me want to get dirty and scruffy as the others must have
looked who inhabited those buildings.
As a child I loved placing my hands into some muddy garden, rubbing the miasmic
earth over them, holding my oozy paws up, showing others that I had coalesced with
something greater than myself: terra nostra. This city would be the navel of my new
world. Now, if I could only lug the two gray American Touristers to a nearby hotel
without getting bummed for change. Or worse, some Times Square junkies ripping them
from my sweaty grip. I read about Bickford’s Cafeteria in Howl, Naked Lunch and
Lonesome Traveler. Not all the scroungers were harmless types who read William Blake.
I walked across 8th Avenue searching for a hotel. I found one and went up a flight of
stairs. A New York hotel with no street-level lobby: funny. The night clerk sat behind a
thick wire mesh cage. I signed the register as Harry Black, a modest homage to Herbert
Selby Jr., his pitiful dark angel. Home address: Land’s End, New York. I had no expectation
the locked-in guy would appreciate this reference. It only mattered that I knew about
Harry and his fate. I would not give my own name, for crissake. My conceit was FOMO
( For One Member Only ): me. I joined my private avant-garde with that allusion. A
minority of one.
The end of the hall looked like something out of Grimm’s fairytales. A cloud of
unknowing existed down there, impenetrable and no doubt unmerciful. I looked only
once. Were my glasses smeary? Had I seen a huge man lurking there? Hmm. I preferred
the healthier chiaroscuro behind the desk. The light slanted across the man’s scar below
his eye. Had he been a nightclub bouncer slashed by a patron? Could not make the vig to
a loan shark? I paid $8 for a room. The man hit a bell a few times. A white bellhop
bounced down the stairs. He grabbed my bags and started carrying them back up the
stairs. I looked up the stairwell. The M.C. Escher illusion spiraled into nowhere and
everywhere simultaneously. It dizzied me. I needed reality. Fast. Fear of high places
staggered me. Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo? Why the reeling? Or had basic primal fear
Perhaps New York activated latent phobias not present in the Midwest. I asked for
another room, closer to command central. The clerk must have chewed on that cigar for a
week because the sodden mess had come loose. Brown leaves stuck to his lower lip and
chin. He looked as if he had melanoma in need of medical attention. He said the room
across the hall was available. I took it.
It came with a gas oven and refrigerator. Not a bad room, maybe I would make this my
permanent residence. The bed felt good after failing to sleep on the bus. But I slept well
in a real bed until great yelling and cursing woke me. “I’ll kill that fucker, yes I will, I’ll
shank him,” came a drunken voice outside my door. Less than one day here and an
assassin wanted to murder me. “Put down that knife, Jerome, put it down. You ain’t
going to hurt nobody, you know that. Put it down. Please.” I recognized the night clerk’s
pleading voice. Back and forth this went: Jerome’s threats and the clerk’s pleas that he
sleep it off, go to his room. By then I realized he had no contract on me. MurderWold
laid no exclusive claim on me. Some other poor soul would get his throat slit, not me.
After an hour knifeman gave up his belligerence. My watch said five a.m. and I could not
go back to sleep.
I opened my door at seven and found that checking out time was one p.m. I walked
south on 8th Avenue, looking for another hotel. I walked about forty blocks until I got to
Bleecker Street, where I headed east. My adrenaline had dropped to zero as I trudged
through Greenwich Village. I bought a Catholic Worker for a penny. The seller talked
about napalm and burning babies but I was too wobbly and nervous for any of that. When
the hotdog man asked whether I wanted sauerkraut and mustard, I told him I did. I grew
up with only Heinz catsup, neither mustard nor sauerkraut. I ate three franks quickly.
I walked past the Village Gate. On the corner was the Bleecker Hotel. I saw a man on
the stoop. He wore a heavy overcoat with a button missing. He coughed on a cigarette,
hacking phlegm out, spitting over the railing. This desk had no protected barrier. The rent
was $9.60 a week. My room was 13A, at the bottom of an airshaft. The bed had cardboard
between the mattress and springs. The linoleum looked like it had been ripped
apart, possibly by a man with delirium tremens. Black patches dominated the floor. A
busted umbrella, beer cans, stocking, soggy men’s underwear, dirt-caked trousers,
broken glass, holey shoes, tattered newspapers, flashlight batteries, empty tin cans: these
lay outside my window to the world. I could have ticked off another list of shit outside
my window, but chose not to. At any rate, it stunk, even through the pane.
The guy gave me a room smelling like a corpse, though I had never inhaled death
itself. The closest to a cadaver I came was during weekday breakfasts, sucking in my
dad’s aftershave and those freshly starched white shirts with the French cuffs. Every time
he shot his cuffs while eating cantaloupe, the death-stench wafted from his gotta-catch-
that-commuter-train anxiety right into my nostrils. Smells, clean or dirty, exerted equal
amounts of deadness. Either version septic, I made peace with putrefaction. And not the
effluvium you read about in literary sources, either. I meant the waste outside the bottom
of O Mannahatta, 13A. The “A” stood for assholes, all those chumps who had rented
13A. Malodorous garbage had nothing surreal about it. I would never be able to translate
that muck into Pop Art novels. I had given up that aspiration.
I sucked it up. Then I asked the guy on the stoop which subway train took me closest
to knifeman’s hotel. The man shifted weight from one foot to the other, attempting to stay
warm in the January winter, exposed like a jackal. He told me. I had to pick up my suitcases
Coming back on the train, I first realized those two Touristers were all my possessions.
I shrunk in my seat, afraid all the passengers knew and loathed my paltriness.
I ate tuna from cans in my room. I gave the leftovers to the cockroaches beneath the
bed. I drank V-8 juice, my only vegetable, and smoked Marlboros afterwards. I bought
the New York Times every so often, reading as I ate Oreos for dessert. The complex
leads made no sense. But one article on Vietnam, how President Johnson and crew
decided to bomb the peasants into submission, I understood. Using B-52s to defeat the
Vietnamese was a demonstration of weakness, not strength. Without getting the U.S.
soldiers’ hands bloody fighting them on the ground, Yankee Doodle Dandy could not
expect to win. And I had never read any guerrilla manual or strategy then. Empathy alone
guided me, plus understanding how vulnerable and fragile the peasants were.
How I had also been placed in jeopardy as those peasants by leaving academic confines.
Rudimentary forces had been unleashed when I left the U of Iowa. Food and shelter
problematic, no income, jobless: I felt private B-52s exclusively targeting me just as they
napalmed the Vietnamese into wretched burning deaths.
I attended one SDS meeting in 1965 on the University of Iowa campus. The room was
jammed. A young guy had been drafted and called up for his physical. His entire talk
concerned the examination process. He told the spectators what to expect when anyone
of us got the notice to report. He was well meaning but mentally scrambled. But, if I got
the call I would never be able talk at all, much less communicate the political and personal
tensions of the ordeal. I choked up, mouth getting dry, whenever speaking to more
than three persons. He had a stack of news clippings and magazine articles four inches
high, flipping through the pile, yanking pieces from the sheath, waving them over his
head, going manic.
One man at the back of the room, the classical DJ on the university radio station, asked
him what should we make of this draft business, how should we act in concerted response
to the draft. The poor guy behind the table fumbled, scatter-shooting his words until he
reached maximum perturbation, throwing up his hands. “You had to be there, man,” he
finally said. I felt sorry for the rebel. But he vowed never to wear a stinking military
insignia and work for The Man. A petition circulated to blow up planes on U.S. Air Force
bases. The Secret Agent had not prepared me for this. It was clear only an agent provocateur
could have written that alleged petition. The Times piece had been my second
encounter with the war, and I no longer had my deferment. I felt the walls close in. It was
palpable. I prolonged masturbation, looking at a Bonwit Teller model in the Times,
escaping time’s bondage until I exploded.
Afterwards, I smoked a cigarette down to the filter, squashed it out in the empty tuna
can. On my back I regarded the ceiling plaster, how it had eroded away. For a moment I
thought I saw into the room above. Flimsiness, the feeling that my new life had become
jerrybuilt, grabbed me by the throat. I gulped in stench from the airshaft as well as whatever
the guy above dropped my way. Growing up, I had an air purifier in my bedroom
because of asthma. That machine would not even fit into 13A. And it would break down,
surrendering to particulate matter gathered for centuries in NYC. Nevertheless, I stayed
in my room except for doing food and Marlboro runs to a grocery on Broadway. My New
York was 13A.
The following night, I walked around, once standing outside the Village Vanguard on
7th Avenue listening to jazz as Kerouac had done. I barely heard the music through the
traffic and pedestrian noise. A long-haired guy who name-dropped lots of jazz tunes
stood next to me, snapping fingers and bopping his head.
“Like Hawk’s ‘Body and Soul,’ isn’t it,” he said to me. I knew nothing about “The
Hawk,” whoever he was. I assented, but had no follow-up, nothing jazz-worthy to chime
“Too cold, I’ve got to go,” I said, and then started moving away.
“This pint of Tokay will make you warm like burning Sterno,” he replied, offering to
share the wine. Sharing implied trust, and I had none of that.
“No, I’ve got to piss,” I lied and walked away. Making getaways had always been my
specialty. Too close, that friendly stranger, so I exited before connections would be made.
The jazz expert would soon find out I had only emptiness inside. He would be profoundly
I wandered around, seeing people drinking at an Orange Julius stand. It looked like too
cold a drink for winter. I bought a V-8 in a bodega, which I drank as I walked. Near the
hotel, outside the Bleecker Street Cinema, a teenage girl asked my help. “Mista, could
you help me? Please.” She held her stomach, bending over as if to retch. At first, I
wanted to aid her, figuring she was pregnant. But I quickly suspected heroin withdrawal.
What could I do, hold her head when she puked? On the other hand, if I helped her,
would not friendship ( or better ) bloom? I took no chances and walked faster to the hotel.
Glad to get back in my warm room, I ate a can of sardines. I used a church key with a
triangular pointed end, running it along the edge, piercing the top of the oval can many
times before I bent the tin back and fingered the slimy fish into my mouth. I had never,
ever, eaten sardines growing up in suburban Chicago.
I wrote in a small notepad about the day’s events, including the messy sardine. Surely
a poem could be made out of my new found setting. I titled it, “Village Vanguard,” and
began writing. I scribbled many words. When I had about ten pages I flipped the pages
and read it. My poetry contained nothing about listening to no-cover-charge jazz and the
New York would-be comrade next to me. The writing had neither place nor state of mind.
I blamed illegible handwriting for being unable to finish reading it. I ripped out the pages
and threw them beneath my bed. Tomorrow I would go to Times Square for the first time
since I retrieved my luggage. All I needed was another location, the right subject matter
for the words to flow. I would buy a larger notebook, printing each word carefully. Yeah,
I needed a little sequencing, moving from word to word, finding my stroke. No more
disorder for me.
I tried interviewing the owner of a game arcade and museum. Well, the museum
consisted of famous world-class outlaws. Even the most mentally challenged knew their
names. If I listed those hombres here, it would bore you to death. Trust me. The
middle-aged man, with a coin changer at his belt, opened up as I wrote down his answers
to every question. I had read The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by
Tom Wolfe as I flunked out of grad school. The book was about the new age of the ‘60s,
an unstoppable force The Establishment could never turn back. He had a PhD in American
Studies and knew what to do with it. I should get serious. I had doctorate envy. After
all, the word, student, derived from the Latin, meant literally “applying oneself to.” What
stopped me from doing that? This 42nd Street attraction would launch my career. But I
lost my concentration. Moving from one question to the next, I saw my unreadable notes,
said thanks to the kind man, and walked away.
I ate two hot salty pretzels with mustard smeared on them, and took the train back to
I eventually mailed a post card to my parents, giving only my address. I felt as if I had
run away from home, when in fact I withdrew from in loco parentis. Once my dad told
me his male friends’ sons all had summer jobs lined up. “You don’t,” he said. “What’s
wrong with you, bub?” My eyes watered. I grabbed my jacket and told him I was leaving
the house. “I’ll hitchhike down Highway 59 to Elgin,” I said. I had $2 in my wallet. I
started opening the backdoor. I felt his hands grab my shoulders from behind. I took off
my jacket and decided against Elgin, though I had no operable reason for doing so.
I wanted to leave. I developed a strong rancor against Dad. His sole ambition sought to
place me in the social Darwinian pit against others more motivated than me. Yet how
grateful I felt when Dad said, “No, don’t go.” Compelled to send the card because I
feared they would worry I had been killed or kidnapped or that a cop would bang on 13A
and tell me to “Beat it kid or I’ll take you back home in handcuffs.” Sort of a preemptive
decision on my part, that postcard. I preferred M.I.A. status, the power to cloud men’s
minds as The Shadow used to radio-speak, losing Dad in puffs of chain-smoked Marlboros
That week I received a letter from Dad. His name was on the return envelope. Typed
on his personal stationary, the beginning seemed cautionary, saying I had made the
option to leave college, though he regretted it. He wished me luck in finding gainful
employment. But then he noted that my college draft deferment would “expire,” and that
I had four choices: ( 1 ) face up to my responsibility and enlist ( 2 ) wait until they draft
me and do my duty ( 3 ) do what your country expected of you ( 4 ) grow up, become a
man and join the ranks of the living.
This had nothing in common with Hobson’s choice, often bandied about. Thomas
Hobson, a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England, offered customers the horse
nearest the door or none at all. Purported in general usage to be no choice at all, one
existed nonetheless. Either a specific horse or no horse, either the Vietnam War or no
war. Unlike Hobson, Dad offered no alternatives.
The man in the room above me began coughing, loud and phlegm-productive, probably
hawking thick globs onto his floor, my ceiling. He tossed an empty bottle down the
airshaft. I jumped from the bed, my desk, forgetting where I was for moment. How many
chances had he in life? He had but one, but by delusions of plenty he clung to deceptions
of more, always more. But the airshaft stopped outside my window, buddy, had you
heard the glass breaking? Could you even hear with that kamikaze asthma attack? Ever
check your sputum for blood and notice you had chronic emphysema, chum? I bet your
father told you to get the fuck out of the house, throwing a liquor bottle at your head as
you ran for your life, no? In spite of Austin’s folksy tautology I would not give my
changed address to Selective Service. Had Dad informed them of my new home?
That upstairs guy had lost it all but I still had Dad, the sober letter writer, to tell me I
had no choice but to sign up for sure death in the jungle. The cougher had no living
father, that assumption was indisputable. Privileged to have a father, even a bastard, I had
more going for me than the man overhead. Great miles of space existed between the
hacker and me. If my fate could be charted, magnetic winds whooshing in an observable
direction, I would always have more maneuverability than cougher or any other man in
this hotel. I would beat the goddamned draft and my current broke state. Tomorrow I had
two watches to pawn.
I calculated that I could pawn them for a month’s rent. Something might come up in
the meantime, although my room had perpetuated all the other bedrooms from childhood
and teenage years. A place to daydream and erase my existence, to block out time, to
focus on the room’s mundane characteristics. 13A accommodated me on all fronts.
I might cash in on New York’s largesse and go begging for quarters on 5th Avenue.
Perhaps I could hit up worshippers after they left St. Patrick’s Cathedral since they would
be in a receptive mood for alms giving afterwards. Though I dreaded and hated going to
the Methodist Church growing up in Barrington, most of the congregation must have
been uplifted by the sermon, the music or during what the church bulletin referred to as
the “Take Time To Be Friendly” period after formal services ended. I felt empty,
depleted, after services. And I always hungered for a big meal at home, like sixteen ounces
of sirloin beef steak. Why worship at all if you only become more foul and selfish
afterwards? Jejune best described my feeling toward those creatures coming from the Altar.
From the Latin meaning “fasting” and “without food.” God’s Finest Hour, for crissake.
During my second sojourn in 1970 in the Big Apple, for the first time ever I asked for
spare change of a worshiper as she walked out a small church on Fifth Avenue near
Washington Square. Suddenly, a bum rushed across the street, explaining to me, the
neophyte, never ask people coming out of church for money. “They ain’t exactly filled
with charity,” the down-and-outer told me. “All our butts are packed with shit to them.”
Apparently, according to the impecunious but professorial man, my assumption proved
false. The woman grabbed her handbag tighter when I asked for a quarter. I thought of
the dark weather at crucifixion, its El Greco sky encapsulating the besieged woman
walking away from my fecal aroma.
But, now I felt jubilant, well, expectant, holding on to the pole as the train moved to
Times Square, the heart of pawnshops. Or so I mythologized. I stopped at a pawnshop on
42nd Street near 10th Avenue. I peered through the bars in the front window. That shiny
saxophone: Had “The Hawk” played it? That theoretical provenance I had never seen
before through any other store window. I looked at my watch for the last time. Austin
gave it to me as a birthday present. The other one, a gift upon graduating high school,
was in my pocket. Five after ten, the man had just opened up. I was his first customer.
The place needed sweeping and smelled moldy. When I looked at the guy behind the
counter, I saw not the grandfather who once owned Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop. This
man was younger: double-chinned, red blotches on his face, missing teeth, labored
breathing, thick glasses, no wedding band on his left hand. Was Fatty too unlovable for
any woman to share her bed?
I bet the guy had piles of smut in storage. Pinups of Ann Sheridan, Gypsy Rose Lee
and Jayne Mansfield hung on the walls. Had he nine-page bibles? The Temptation:
Would I exchange two watches for a naked photo of Deborah Kerr? I once bought in
Barrington a movie fan magazine showing her on a set, smoking, leaning back on a
ladder, her slip raised halfway up her thighs. Brit actresses, classy and smarter than
American ones. Why was it that intelligent gals always had good legs?
The Old Curiosity Shop. Was I ugly Quilp the dwarf? Maybe Fatty and I both needed
a Nell in our lives. It could have been the lurid Times Square movie marquees churning
up my loins. I had no surplus value, no extra money to even see those cheap-seat films.
“I want to sell these two watches.” I pushed them toward him.
“Sell or pawn?” Too early in the day for semantics, I thought.
“Sell. What will you give me?” My hands shook.
My high school chums and I once went to Chicago’s Maxwell Street, known for its
rummage and underculture allure. A man showed us a ring. “It’s a real diamond,” he said.
“It’ll cut glass, see.” He scraped the stone on a dirty window of a vacated store. Yep, big
gouges meant a true diamond. We each pitched in what we could. Back in Barrington, I
told Dad about our $5 ring purchase. The next day my friends and I took it for appraisal.
The local jeweler looked without his loupe, declaring it worthless. Ever since that fraudulent
day I had been wary of making deals. Grifters and scoundrels, I accessed men like Fatty.
In truth, I knew the value of nothing. I assumed a functional universe where, if a viper
had to be confronted, my backup, someone acquainted with our reptilian cores, would
step in on my behalf. But performing, the gerund, had always been my bete noire. I had
not merely disliked performing, but had no talent for it. I was the real Man Without
Qualities. No actual performing took place. Only imagination was permitted. Fatty
wanted to deal and that handicapped me. I should have said I wanted to pawn them,
getting more on a loan rather than simply selling them.
He, too, had no use for a loupe.
“I’ll give you $10.”
“For each?” I wanted a toasted English muffin with a fried egg on top and lots of grape
jelly right then.
“For them both.” His chubby forefinger tapped once on the counter.
“OK.” From his wallet he gave me two fives. I settled for a toasted English and bagel
with a smear. I asked for another glass of water before I took the train back to Bleecker
Street. Rent was due in two days. I had never realized until then the importance of meat
protein, its deficiencies leading to poor execution of thought.
The next morning, I wandered around the city, having no destination in mind. If I
believed in a higher power, it would be an accidental encounter on a random street with a
recognizable, non-spiritualized human being. Salvation had nothing in common with the
notion of haphazardness. If I named it, unintentionalism came to mind. That would be my
religion, one of short-lived but vivid faith. This person had in their power whatever it
took to get me out of dangerous times. Big trouble could not be averted by zazen (sitting
meditation) or slumped on a barstool drinking beer. I expected others to heed my call for
help. Walker Percy hit upon it in The Moviegoer: “To become aware of the possibility
of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” The
most minimal I could do was be a walker through the city. On Herald Square, I walked
across the street and stood on an island. Vehicles honked and streamed on all sides. A
young black man stood selling Mohammad Speaks.
“Looking for something to read?” he asked without sarcasm or irony.
Yeah, I first heard Ray Charles sing “Busted” when it came out, about two months
before JFK’s assassination. I’m broke, no bread, I mean nothing at song’s end.
“Here, read the truth about America,” he said, thrusting out the paper. I took it.
And Malcolm X’s response after the President’s death about “a case of chickens
coming home to roost.” After that remark, Elijah Mohammad suspended Malcolm X
from the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X’s point was that the killing of John Kennedy had
been a prime example of violence used by whites against black leaders for four hundred
years. You killed our best and brightest, now see how it felt when yours got slain by the
same race of murderers who have been killing black people. Blowback.
At the height of the Watts Rebellion in mid-August, 1965, Austin drove from Barrington
to Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. I had completed summer school, finally graduating with
degrees in English and sociology. I loaded the car with my possessions and then Dad
wheeled down the highway east, back home. The convertible top down on a great blue
day, wind cooling us from ninety degree heat, and Dad asked me would the riots ever
stop. News reports came on the car radio as we sped east, which triggered his question.
His mother had lived on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. for decades until her death and his
sister lived in nearby Seal Beach. Thoughts of armed blacks rampaging through white
suburbs must have alarmed him. Barrington lay thirty-seven miles northwest of Chicago.
What if Southside Chicago blacks armed themselves and shot and killed indiscriminately
our neighbors. Or Lorraine, his wife and my mother. And rape, that primordial crime, its
possibility lodged deep within Dad’s brain, must have surfaced and become starker. Or so
I thought listening to his anxiety. It caught me off guard. I was surprised he sought my
opinion on the Watts upheaval. I had acquired liberal dimensions while attending college
and then would be a perfect chance to demonstrate them.
“They’re still fighting for freedom,” I said.
“The Civil War’s over,” he said. “What do they want?”
“They live with the rats and can’t get out of the ghetto white men have locked them
into,” I said. I found my chops. Those sociology courses with their Marxist tendencies
had not been squandered after all.
“Will it ever stop?” he asked again.
“Not until blacks are integrated and get what white people have,” I said.
“They should study and go to college like we did,” he said.
“Do you know Malcolm X got assassinated February 21, this year, the day before
Washington’s Birthday?” I asked.
“So. He’s a very violent man,” he said.
“George Washington owned slaves,” I said. “The Great White Father owned slaves on
his plantation.” The connection missed its mark. My dad was not big on irony. Back and
forth this went until we stopped for food. I drank a Manhattan and got drunk, too
inebriated for any deep or even shallow discussions on racism.
I stood, dizzy and lightheaded from hunger, next to the Black Muslim, a stranger to me
then and forever, his newspaper in my clenched fist, the havoc of traffic around us. I
thought about the chickens coming home to roost. Not in Malcolm X’s context, but mine.
How life with Austin, the pressure to succeed and make something of myself drummed
into me from earliest memories, had indeed come home to roost: the Sparling chickens,
they were. The expectations and high promise had come down to asking,
“Are you interested in a three-piece herringbone suit used only for church-going on
Sundays?” I asked the Black Muslim. He smiled.
“No holes and in your size?’
“Yeah. I can get it if you want.”
“$5,” I said. I knew nothing of secondhand haberdashery.
“$3,” he countered. I agreed. I told him I had to pick it up in my room on Bleecker
“Will you be here?” I asked.
“Will you be here?”
“I’ll be back as fast as possible.” I took off, coming back sweating and weak from lack
of caloric fuel. He looked serious but pleased when I handed it to him. My first suit, too. I
bought a kosher frank and a pound of potato salad which I ate with a plastic spoon in a
delicatessen. The rest went for train fare back to the hotel.
A day later, I asked the manager to hold my luggage, I would come back soon to pay
another week’s rent. He obliged. Too spineless, I failed asking him whether I might stay
and pay rent when I found work or got plain ordinary money. He might refuse and I
would then go paranoid. I had no conception of work. It was as real as the Nibelungenlied.
A heroic epic and a job: Twin Illusions of the Western World. So I hit the streets.
I walked to Times Square, finding transients everywhere I turned. Or so I surmised. I
sat in Bickford’s Cafeteria on 42nd Street. Some cups and dishes lay on the table, offering
me cover as a customer who just wanted to relax after a good meal. Faking it looked
easy, but it proved unbearable.
I had not any book to read, not even one I could have checked out at the public library
a few blocks away. I once tried to read three volumes of The Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire, but fell asleep like the other bums. “Understanding engrosses in conversation,
but solitude is the school of genius,” wrote Gibbon. I had neither associates of any
kind I could converse with nor genius brought on by self-enforced solitude. Not that I felt
capable of understanding, but without social partners that reachable kingdom was
unavailable to me. Though my solitude had fields of plenty in which to roam, after
putting it to the test all these years, genius seemed as remote as ultima Thule. Tenacious
pride held me back from accepting life as an overgrown urchin, so I never returned to the
I was a true shirker and never consulted the Village Voice for free events or lectures.
Yet, somehow I knew a place existed called the Society for Ethical Culture. I must have
read the Voice in the University of Iowa library. Any confined contact with strangers in
lecture halls petrified me. One reason I quit college was those damn cramped classes.
They manifested latent agoraphobia. What if a woman spoke to me, asking me questions
about Kant or Spinoza? Or even Charles Schulz? I might have to talk and they would find
out my stupidity in all matters great and small.
No one even left a newspaper for me at legendary Bickford’s. And I had no money to
buy one. Reaching for a dumped paper in trash bins along the streets was child’s play. I
had never considered that. In anonymous Manhattan, still the towering fear of being
spied upon. I had seen the New York Daily News in a bin but snobbery forbade me from
touching that rag. I had read somewhere that guys with zipper jackets read that paper, as
opposed to buttons, coats expensive and trendy worn by comfortable, educated persons. I
despised that buttoned strata in general. Yet I gravitated instead toward the literary
intellectuals coming from the dreaded middle and upper-middle classes. Like Athena
born from the head of Zeus, I sought the mystique of culture springing from heritage of
that lofty realm. Its aura had seduced me into reading the New York Times.
I spent the night in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The passengers thinned out, and
the nighttime invaders I spotted easily. The man in the red shirt, shooed by police all
night from the men’s washroom. I held out, not peeing until passengers swept through on
their way to work in the morning. The drunks endured a poke with the nightstick here, a
jab there, until they waddled out onto 8th Avenue. All seats reserved for passengers, the
gendarmes never disturbed me for some reason. I shifted from one seat to another,
alternating between musical chairs, trying to look alert. Preoccupied with travel, I
attained total emotional immersion, complete identification in the role of passenger. The
junkies, nodding out on inhospitable turf, always getting pat searched for their outfits
by cops. They were losers who had no crib where they could stay high without interruption,
instead slumping under bright, florescent lights. The guy in the overcoat reminded
me of TV’s Captain Kangaroo, Bob Keeshan, with his bowl haircut and walrus
mustache. Was this hour-of-the-wolf bus station the new Treasure House, a place where
the Captain wandered around, meeting guests and puppets? I saw only one homeless
woman, who kept sitting next to me. Every time I moved away from her stench, she
traipsed back over and slouched down. Was I downwind from her? I fancied these people
stock characters, like those disillusioned ones on the docks in The Iceman Cometh.
I wore khaki pants, food-stained in front, my only façade of respectability. No cop
nudged me with his club the entire night and pre-dawn hours. Possibly only the regulars
got poked to move or shoved along out the door. My story if a cop told me to show my
bus ticket or leave was that my parent’s had mailed a money order from home. Hickey
had not disturbed my illusions, separating me from the others. Only one night of suffering
and I could rent an apartment. Hickey had been a softy and had not done his work on me,
so I felt my Wasp diction would telegraph middle class to working-class cops. They
would understand my plight. After all, Americans believed in upward mobility, no? The
lumpen surrounding me had no defenses at hand as I had. The cops never threatened me.
At seven a.m. I walked onto 8th Avenue. That time of the morning only junkies who
had failed to score prowled Times Square. Or so I figured. On 42nd Street I witnessed a
youth, screaming in Spanish and English at a small crowd who assailed him with threats.
He flailed a knife at them, effectively holding them off. Whatever they had in mind for
him would have to wait for another day. But the mass of bus commuters from New Jersey
absorbed their squabble, their sheer numerical superiority immunizing themselves against
harm. As the white collar workers streamed through Times Square, pimps, junkies,
hookers, muggers, thieves, panhandlers and murderers disappeared, became invisible.
The ordinary routine camouflaged the petty and consequential felons, dispersing them
among productive citizens. My empathic mind knew that social truth, though I personally
had not observed those criminals. Walking down 42nd Street, I wanted to be amongst the
most vile and despicable humanity possible. I had read my Jean Genet, and knew what it
meant to be outcast and hated.
My vision blurred, my balance failed me, I felt very pale and pasty, my stomach
burned from lack of food, and my hip bones felt as if all the calcium had grinded out
and trickled down my legs. I ached when I got to Gramercy Park at 23rd Street. Mineral
depletion or dehydration?
Pedestrians plotted against me. In one redounding, simultaneous finger-sweep, they
would destroy me, leaving no trace of Mr. Sparling on earth. I had not eaten in nearly
two days. I never saw or cared about the traffic light at corners. When the herd moved
through the crosswalk, I followed. I jostled against people, not bothering whether they
were suspicious or offended. I needed their physical power to propel me forward, to
where I had no idea. The crowds diminished as I walked through Washington Square. I
felt the loss of their flow of strength. The lonely crowd had left me alone. Who said “the
largest, the thinnest category: being”? Bukowski? Celine?
Walking down the stairs of the Loeb Student Center: Had I sought employment or food
or had I out of social reflex sought sanctuary among students? Triangle of forces: “a
triangle whose sides represent in magnitude and direction three forces in equilibrium”:
New Oxford American Dictionary. Three powers equally acted together, I descended
dematerialized stairs. My eyes bounced around in dim sockets, starvation blinding me. It
was noon. Students had filled the cafeteria. What was it about cafeterias? Their
institutional food, how comforting the aromas and settings were.
I asked the first person I saw wearing an apron, “Are they hiring?” He spoke broken
English, and said, “Ask Juan. He’s the manager.” He pointed to a man wearing a neat
white shirt and tie. The students seemed to part, making my way easier, as I tried to
maintain a straight path toward him.
“Do you need help?” I asked. Help? Who was I, Anne Sullivan? “Are they’re any
blind persons who can’t talk and need help?” might have been my introduction to Juan.
I stood, smelling my pits: awful. My smeary glasses, stubbly beard, uncombed hair,
wrinkled shirt, splotched pants and toothpasteless mouth. I could not even buy a pack of
Wrigley’s Spearmint gum, for crissake. Help?
“Sure. One busboy quit,” Juan said. “You came at the right time.” He told me his
name. He asked me to sit down.
“OK” I said. I had not rested since dawn. My feet hurt.
“You want some lunch?” he asked. I stared at him. “On the house. Have as much as
“OK,” I said. He led me to the line and put a tray into my hands.
“Take what you like,” he said. “I’ll tell the cashier, Max, it’s all taken care of.”
I loaded up. I had difficulty putting it all on the tray.
“Go for seconds if you want,” Juan told me. He talked to the cashier. Max looked up at
me, then shifted his efforts and tallied the students’ lunches.
“OK,” I said.
After two complete trays filled with food, I signed a small application form. Juan
spoke Spanish to a busboy who passed by, then English to me: a seamless transition.
“You’ll start tomorrow at eleven,” he said. “Can you make it until payday next
Friday?” I told him I had to pay rent on the hotel, only three bocks away. He wrote out an
IOU for $15, and I signed it. I could pay rent and the extra $5.40 meant enough tuna and
peanut butter sandwiches until that first check. We shook hands. I walked up the stairs a
My job took no executive training and that pleased me. I cleared tables. The details
self evident, my real task was to look busy during slow periods. I re-wiped empty tables
four and five times, fearful that the predominantly Puerto Rican staff would talk among
themselves, labeling me just another white guy who thought he was better than them. I
knew no Spanish. I assumed they spoke behind my back. By putting everything I had into
the working day, I preempted that from happening. We got along well, though every
time they spoke Spanish with each other, I suspected they had nothing but contempt for
One incident occurred. A young Puerto Rican, who bantered a lot with a Nicaraguan,
asked me to say something in Spanish to him, which I did but had no idea what it meant
in English. Then the Puerto Rican said, “Say it again?” which I did. The Nicaraguan, a
serious and tense looking fellow, talked back in Spanish ( he knew no English ), rubbed
his cheeks, then giving me the jack off gesture. He was very agitated at whatever I said.
He kept repeating a short phrase, then the universal, right-handed masturbatory
pantomime for shooting your rocks off. I backed down after that. I understood his
miming. Yes, I had jerked off all my life and that was how I got acne. Never mind that it
could be from not absorbing vitamin A properly or the chemicals in common hand soap,
my skin problem came because I never dated females. The busboys’ laughter died out
when they heard the Nicaraguan’s response. They must have pitied me a little.
Juan was Cuban, coming to New York City when the revolutionaries seized power.
When I ate he invited me to his table where we would discuss the Revolution and its
aftermath. My ideological position: Batista was a fascist, gangsters ran crooked
gambling, prostitution and drugs, Cubans died of hunger, disease and murder at the hands
of Nazi thugs, illiteracy and poverty flourished, big American business supported Batista
at the expense of the people, basta ya! classless society established, dictatorship of the
proletariat, long live Che! Down with the capitalistic bourgeoisie, goodbye to all that
profiteering, thank you Communists.
He politely listened, then explained how Castro took away everything from average
families who worked hard to have a little middle-class comfort. Juan’s father owned a
restaurant, which was stolen ( “No,” I said, “you mean expropriated.“ ) by Communists
after the takeover, and then his dad thrown into jail. Juan told me he came to the States
with nothing and now his kids can get a real education, not some propaganda doled out
by the Cuban government. He and his family of five had a higher standard of living even
though they lived in the South Bronx. He explained how the farmers had their land
confiscated ( “Rich kulak landowners,” I said. “Stalin had to do the same thing.” ),
pauperized by the revolution. Juan’s uncle owned a medium sized rice plantation and now
lived in cramped quarters meant for five people with three other families in a second
floor above a former cigar rolling shop. His uncle and family risked going to prison for
life, or worse, if they got caught fleeing Cuba.
Almost daily, I refined my arguments against America, defending la revolucion. He
never mentioned the day he gave me all I could eat. I stood for everything he despised,
yet he calmly made his case against Castro and la revolucion. Juan enjoyed arguing, I
thought, it made his brain function better. Never had I realized for a moment how
ungrateful I must have been in his eyes.
He endured my “crackpot realism,” a phrase sociologist C. Wright Mills coined in his
1958 book, The Causes of World War III. Instead of using it as Mills had to represent
U.S. government policy makers, I misappropriated the term. My usage turned “crackpot
realism” into Soviet agitprop, with lunatic histrionics and meretricious bombast. The
Mills book was about how U.S. militarism and its unjustified Cold War against the
Soviet Union would drag everyone into world conflagration. I gave the paperback to
Austin as a statement of belief. In reality, the heresy erected a barrier, protecting me from
open emotions. He reciprocated, handing me a hardback book titled, The Federal Bulldozer,
a right-wing attack against urban development and housing projects. I drove
Austin further away than ever, sabotaging our relationship with that Mills tract.
With Juan, I would not relent, victimizing him as well. Unlike the Cuban Embargo
which banned commercial activity, I forbade genuine social discourse. My tirades should
have been tempered by subservience as an employee, but white middle class privilege
emboldened me. Juan always treated my jeremiads favoring communism with courtesy.
What he thought of my arms flailing out like a spastic boxer when I spoke, I never knew.
Or how I kept cutting him off, intolerant of bourgeois viewpoints. Or how I belittled the
family, its historic accomplishments leading to la revolucion. He mentioned that he was
one of eight children.
Even though busboy work had nothing ennobling about it, our ideological war of
words linked us far beyond my low standing. I once sat on my bed in the cell, my room,
and regretted what I said about him being a traitor to the Cuban people. Juan reacted
civilly to my remark, but locked inside 13A I realized I might have gone too far. Voluble
whenever I preached communism, my passionate words masked cruelty. In 13A after
work, eating a sandwich and potato salad Juan had given me, I reflected: I hated myself
being so heartlessness. A cold, cold warrior, I was.
By May the self-discipline required for the job wavered. One night, I broke rank, going
across Bleecker Street to a popular tourist bar. It had been my first time drinking alcohol
outside 13A. Tuesday night kept the tourists away. Alone at the end of the bar, I drank
shot after shot of Jack Daniels. Straight, no chaser. “Straight, No Chaser,” Miles Davis
Sextet, 1958. Hey, where was the beat guy who stood outside the Village Vanguard? I
toasted the motherfucker.
Shot after shot, I talked to no one. The bartender stood at the far end of the long bar.
The only patrons were two police officers eating large meals in the rear. I sat for hours.
Only once I got off my stool to check the jukebox. I played “I Am A Rock,” by Simon
and Garfunkel. I had no radio and never heard of the song. I blurred out its precious
angst. A fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate. These lyrics seared my
brain: the operative word. “none.” Back off, stand down, keep your distance had been my
own real life refrains. Refusing to dissolve myself in experience, I would never “find
myself.” I was no Thomas Wolfe; that was evident.
I had no recollection of leaving the bar and walking across the street to my room. I
woke up on the dirty linoleum beneath the cobwebbed springs of my bed. I banged my
head edging out, slowly getting on to the bed. I flopped backwards but could not get to
sleep. What kept me awake were thoughts about having to crawl out from under the rest
of my life.
George Sparling has been published in many literary magazines including
Tears in the Fence, Lynx Eye, Pittsburgh Quarterly, Red Rock Review, Hunger,
Paumanok Review, Word Riot, Rattle, Pindeldyboz, nthposition, Snake Nation Review,
Thieves Jargon, and Prose Toad. He has a short story in the winter, 2004 issue of
Slow Trains and one in the January, 2005 issue of Laura Hird’s Showcase.
He has had many jobs including a welfare caseworker in East Harlem, a lumberyard
laborer, a placer gold miner in the northern wilderness of California, a bookstore clerk,
a postal mail carrier, a crab butcher on the early morning killing docks ( those were the
days of big hangovers ), and a salmon processor ( I flung fish around all day ).
He has a degree in English from Iowa Wesleyan College, is now in early retirement and is
writing short stories as well as working on a memoir about his relationship to his father,
focusing on the years after leaving home. He tries through prose to give all dark things the
light they require to exist unconditionally.